After 26 Umphrey’s McGee shows, I feel like I should be much better than I am at recognizing songs by name. At The Orpheum on Saturday they played plenty of heavy-hitters that I’ve seen live many times—in fact most of the songs they played I recognized—but the only ones I could name with any certainty were the covers. True, the repertoire is absurdly huge, but I realize it’s at least subconsciously intentional on my part; I only have room in my brain for so much useless information, and the Bands Whose Entire Repertoires I Have Memorized section is pretty full. Once I start an obsession like that, it never really ends; to commit to a Phish-like devotion to learning to recognize a similarly vast array of tunes would be detrimental to my ability to get anything practical done for months. At this point I’m more likely to recognize a UM song I don’t like than one I do, which is dumb. Also, I rarely listen to UM recordings; the pursuit strikes me as more academic than spiritual, not that I wouldn’t enjoy it but there are much higher priorities. There’s obviously something about Umphrey’s songs that limits how deeply I can connect with them. Which makes it all the more impressive on their part that I keep coming back.
I hate to drag out Phish comparisons, but I know that a big part of why I go to Umphrey’s shows is to get certain fixes that I used to get from Phish. [note: this is the only reason I ever went to ANY jamband show besides Phish and Dave Matthews Band, come to think of it] One example is the willingness to take improvisational detours at any point in a show; from the opening song to the encore, Umphrey’s might jam, and that’s the element of Phish that I miss most. At the Orpheum, two of the night’s hottest jams, “The Triple Wide” (subtitled “What If Steely Dan Could Jam”) and “Puppet String”, came in the first set, and the superb encore of “Divisions” sandwiched a “How Many More Times” (my favorite Zep song if you must know) interlude and also featured a creepy descending ambient jam that was pretty out-there even for Umphrey’s. The musicians of UM go into every show with a clear intent to push boundaries, which is what defined Phish during its peak and is now rare.
Granted, the Umphrey’s improv method is intrinsically a safer proposition than the Phish method; there is a lot more forethought involved and a complex musical communication going on that’s mathematical compared to Phish’s relatively unpremeditated drifting, but it’s no less musically valid at face value. If you like heavy, complex prog rock with intense, unpredictable improvisation, you will find something to love at an Umphrey’s show, unless you’ve become so jaded that music itself no longer excites you. Even if the overall creativity isn’t as spontaneous or tense, I’d take sucky jams over no jams any day because at least they’re trying, and UM’s jams are rarely sucky.
I don’t want to say Umphrey’s songs themselves are sterile compared to Phish’s, but in terms of my tastes, it seems undeniable. They’re definitely more calculated and less unique musically, and their lyrics run the gamut from mundane to nonsensical with few examples of the clever, heartfelt but not corny balance they seem to be striving for. Where Phish is concerned, I like to think I don’t care what songs they play as long as they jam, but seeing Umphrey’s suggests that the songs actually are more important than I like to admit.
Then there’s the issue of individual musicianship. Of the two guitarists in Umphrey’s, only Jake Cinninger has a unique creative flair; Brendan Bayliss is a talented technician with no original style of his own, although when he and Jake work together their combined leads are often distinctive and almost always slop-free. I’d even give Jake the nod on vocals; his impersonation of Bob Seger for the second-set finale “Hollywood Nights” (a song I would never in a million years have thought I’d want to hear anyone cover, but it was absolutely brilliant) easily topped anything Bayliss sang in terms of grit and emotion. I honestly feel bad, because I like Brendan a lot as a frontman, and he’s actually a much better singer than the majority of jamband singers out there, and I know he means it. He just wasn’t blessed with a noteworthy voice; it’s a conveyor of words, a lightning rod for audience singalongs, and that’s fine. It’s not like anybody in Phish is a great singer.
But keyboardist Joel Cummins is the real wild card in the bunch; he is so maddeningly inconsistent that you can’t help rooting for him. He came out with this awful cheesy solo during “The Triple Wide”, then orchestrated this crazy psychedelic/electro freakout jam later on in the same song that was amazing. He fluctuates between painfully awkward and genuinely moving and impressive over and over throughout a show, and it kind of makes him the lynchpin. Brendan and the two percussionists are steadfastly average, Jake and bassist Ryan Stasik are reliably superb and Joel is all over the place, but particularly on nights like this one when Jake isn’t going for heroics they really need Joel to be on his game, and for the most part, he really was. The “JaJunk” suite in set two was pretty much ridiculous throughout, including a section of “The Linear” that morphed into the main theme from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for a bit; didn’t see that coming, but there’s another thing that Phish used to do a LOT more of. Joel may have made a few head-scratching choices, but overall his melodic and textural creativity carried the upper register of the improv, while Stasik, as usual, was the backbone the entire night.Ultimately, it was yet another reliably terrific show that I feel silly trying to pick apart that nevertheless made me question why I don’t get even more fired up about this band. Respect is one kind of love, but the spiritual kind mostly eludes me where Umphrey’s is concerned. After this many shows, the band’s schemes become more and more transparent, and I prefer subterfuge--but still, I felt the rush of emotional musical transcendence several times throughout the night. The scientific movements that create the precise patterns of vibrations that elicit the biochemical responses that make me feel good were occurring (thank God the sound improved tremendously following the otherwise-still-bad Mike Dillon Band opening set). This band is still better at what it does than any other similar band, and I look forward to seeing it live at least three more times this year.